Sandra Oh became the first person of Asian descent to host the Golden Globes on Sunday night. Blockbuster films “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Black Panther,” both groundbreaking movies, were on the receiving end of nominations. Heading into the night, the 76th annual Golden Globes Awards seemed poised to be a racially inclusive broadcast.
But, from off-color jokes to the celebration of “Green Book,” a film being widely criticized for its white savior narrative, the 2019 ceremony proved to be business as usual.
“Black Panther” made history as the first Marvel film to feature an all-black leading cast, the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time and the first superhero movie to be nominated for a Golden Globe. The film about an African superhero from a fictitious African supernation racked up three nominations in total, including one for best drama.
During the opening monologue, co-host Andy Samberg muddled through an ill-advised joke targeting the film’s director, Ryan Coogler.
After questioning whether any original Black Panther Party members asked to audition for the film he quipped, “Just kidding. They were all framed and murdered for wanting justice and equality. The world is and always has been a nightmare. It just seems worse now because of our phones.”
Coogler’s facial expression captured how I imagined most black viewers felt: bothered. By the time Oh stepped in to deliver a heartfelt sentiment championing the diversity in the room, the damage was done.
Samberg’s joke was merely the latest example of Hollywood’s propensity to use black pain as entertainment.
The writers’ room collectively decided to highlight the film’s namesake, a controversial ’60s black political organization whose members were labeled terrorists and silenced by death and imprisonment. The group was once considered so radical, Marvel briefly modified the character’s name to Black Leopard in the original comic series to avoid the association.
The joke felt hostile because it was ill-timed. It fell flat because it broke a cardinal rule of comedy. There is nothing funny about white violence and dead black bodies.
Sadly, as a black man living in America who also directed “Fruitvale Station,” a biographical drama based on the 2009 police killing of Oscar Grant, Coogler could not enjoy the ceremony without his movie being made into a joke about black murder and the systemic racism that continues to enable police violence.
Ultimately, it felt as though “Black Panther” was invited to the party but treated like an unwanted guest. After being singled out for being different and potentially dangerous, it was not awarded in any category.
By contrast, a film aimed at black audiences that performed poorly at the box office became one of the night’s biggest winners. Based on what is alleged to be the true story of an unlikely friendship between a white driver and black concert pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) in 1962, “Green Book” has come under fire for being a “white savior film” that doesn’t adequately tell the story of the Green Book, the periodical which existed to help black people protect themselves while traveling in the South.
Instead, it is centered around a white character and includes a cast of stereotypical black characters. The screenplay was penned by the real-life driver’s son, and is told from his father’s perspective. Shirley’s family does not support the film, claiming the plot is fabricated and the friendship did not exist.
This fits in with a larger tendency in Hollywood to white-washing black history to appeal to white audiences.
“Green Book” is accused of watering down the realities of the violent racism of the South during the Jim Crow era in order to craft a feel-good narrative that could enable a kinship between a white man and a black man. For its efforts, “Green Book” took home awards for best screenplay and best musical or comedy. Ali also won best supporting actor for his portrayal of Shirley.
When asked about the film’s controversy Ali responded, “I respect the family. I respect Dr. Shirley and his family and wish them well. I have a job to do, and I have to continue to do my job as I move on to my next project and treat everyone I work with with respect."